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Navigating AFC Collections Geographically: Great Plains

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A dark stormy sky over brown grasses.
A brewing storm above the grassland in Riley County, Kansas. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, April 6, 2021. Forms part of Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The following is a guest post by American Folklife Center head of reference, Judith Gray.

Staff at the American Folklife Center continue to use new digital tools to support remote discovery and access for our resources by users of all kinds. Whether you are a community scholar, a teacher, an academic researcher, a creative artist, or a curious consumer of local culture we hope that our geographically-oriented research guides offer an entry point into the rich collections and resources maintained at the Center! Find the full menu of Library of  Congress Research Guides at this link.

In this post, we focus on the guides for the Great Plains, comprised of the states of Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

According to the Great Plains Region volume of the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures, the region can best be understood by appreciating its environmental context (an area seeming to stretch without boundaries, treeless, semi-arid, prone to extreme weather) and the fact that populations there have always been moving and in flux since prehistoric times. But “regionalism” in regard to the Great Plains is a concept that has had changing understandings, from post-World-War-I senses that regionalism offered a way of being in touch with one’s roots to the mid-century rejection of regional divisions in favor of national unity to more recent emphases on research among immigrant cultures. Drawing upon the writings of historian Frederick Luebke, we can observe that the Great Plains, like all regions, is a concept arising from the interplay of environment and culture. The Library of Congress Research Guides featured below point out the ever-changing cultural communities that have found homes in the Great Plains states.

Our research guides for each state and territory provide information about collections related to that state or territory—including links to those materials available online—as well as tips for searching the Library’s online catalog. In addition, we’ve gathered other American Folklife Center resources related to a given state or territory, such as blog posts, podcast episodes, online finding aids, and webcasts of public programs. Here are some of the items you’ll find in the Great Plains guides:

Introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: Kansas with an embedded video showing a man in uniform.
Screenshot of the introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: Kansas

American Folklife Center Collections: Kansas  introduces many Veterans History Project interviews from those residing in Kansas. Other collections focus on the Mennonite communities within the state. Also included is the online presentation of  interviews with Boeing Aircraft Factory workers in and around Wichita, Kansas, an Occupational Folklife Project collection. The Bajich Brothers Serbian-American tambura quartet 2008 Homegrown Concert is available to view.

Introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: Nebraska with a picture of a native american dancer
Screenshot of the introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: Nebraska

American Folklife Center Collections: Nebraska features extensive documentation of the song traditions of the Omaha Tribe over the course of a century, from cylinder recordings made in the 1890s through documentation of the annual powwow (1983-1986), together with interviews of elders in the 1990s commenting on the earlier recordings and photographs. The online presentation Omaha Indian Music  brings together much of this material. Available to view in the guide is a concert of Dutch Hop music characteristic of the Volga Deutsch (Germans from Russia who emigrated to Canada and the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, settling in the Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming area), The River Boys Polka Band.

Introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: North Dakota with a photograph of a woman.
Screenshot of the introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: North Dakota

The guide entitled American Folklife Center Collections: North Dakota provides an overview of collections from the early Teton Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa cylinder recordings gathered by Frances Densmore in the 1910s. It features the online collection Homeless Shelter Workers in the Upper Midwest, part of the Occupational Folklife Project. Another online collection mentioned is documentation of the German-Russian Ethnic Studies Program at Emmons Central High School in Strasburg, part of the Center’s Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection in the 1980s.  Also featured is the 2006 Homegrown concert and storytelling event by Mary Louise Defender Wilson and Keith Bear from the Standing Rock and Fort Berthold reservations, available for viewing in the guide.

introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: Oklahoma with a photo of circus tents.
Screenshot of the introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: Oklahoma

The Research Guide, American Folklife Center Collections: Oklahoma provides information on extensive documentation of many tribal communities in Oklahoma, from cylinder recordings in the early 20th century through the “Indians for Indians” radio broadcasts made at WNAD-Norman in the 1940s-50s, and a video of Chocktaw storytelling and music performed by Tim Tingle & D.J. Battiest-Tomasi at the Library of Congress in 2011. A well-known Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie, is represented in the guide with a Folklife Today blog post on “Woody Guthrie on Elections, Politics, and the Power of Folksong” that draws on online material in the online presentation Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence. Also featured online is the occupational folklife documentation of Midwestern family-circus workers at the traditional “wintering over” town of Hugo, Oklahoma in The “Big Top” Show Goes On: An Oral History of Occupations Inside and Outside the Canvas Tent.

Introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: South Dakota with a picture of a quilt appliqued with flowers.
Screenshot of the introduction to American Folklife Center Collections: South Dakota

American Folklife Center Collections: South Dakota introduces substantive collections from the tribal peoples of South Dakota, including the 1940s recordings made at Pine Ridge, Wanblee, and Crow Creek by Columbia University music professor, Willard Rhodes, as well as the 1955 interview with Dewey Beard, last Native survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Other types of traditions are evident in the recordings made by Nicholas Ray for the WPA Recreation Project in 1939, including mining and cowboy songs as well as sheepherding stories and poems. Online is a 2007 performance of hoop dances by Dallas Chief Eagle and Jasmine Pickner of the Rosebud and Crow Creek Sioux tribes that can be accessed via the guide.

As this brief introduction to these guides shows, there is a lot to learn from these guides whether you plan to browse the collection materials online or are planning a trip into the reading room.  We hope that researcher, students, and folks who, perhaps just want to experience some folklore or folk music from a particular state will find these new guides a good place to start.

Be sure to visit the Library of Congress Research Guides pages in order to discover the full spread of resources on offer! And, also know that American Folklife Center staff have generated (and continue to produce) guides focused on a wide range of topics. You can find the growing body of these rich and dynamic resources from the American Folklife Center here.

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